Child Custody in Mercer County, PA

Whether you are a parent in the middle of a painful divorce or a single co-parent sharing responsibilities with your child's other parent, child custody is a stressful and time-consuming process. Pennsylvania courts do not take these decisions lightly and are keenly interested in making sure your final custody order is in the very best interest of your child.

With so many important parental rights and responsibilities at stake, this is one journey you don't want to make alone. Instead, you'll need someone you can trust—an experienced family law attorney who is uniquely tuned to your family's individual needs and who will passionately advocate on your behalf during your Mercer County custody battle.

For questions about how child custody works or for other Pennsylvania family law questions, we want to hear from you. Call the LLF Law Firm Team today at (888) 535-3686 or contact us online, and let us help protect your rights and ensure the best outcome for your family.

What Is Custody?

Custody is a legal term that encompasses the rights, powers, and responsibilities associated with parental rights. This includes things like where a child will spend their time and with whom, along with who has the authority to make decisions on a child's behalf.

When a child's parents are married, both partners share these rights and responsibilities equally. Both have full parental authority and decision-making power. These rights are interchangeable and can be exercised at any time by either partner because the court operates under the legal assumption that the will of one parent represents the intent of both. (This is why, for example, only one of you has to sign that field trip permission slip.)

Married partners with full parental rights are allowed to exercise the full range of child custody rights and parental powers without the other's permission. However, if parents are not married—say, because of divorce—then these parental rights must be divided and outlined in what's known as a custody agreement or custody order.

Pennsylvania Custody Orders

A child custody order is a legal document that divides parental rights and responsibilities between parents. It outlines who is responsible for what, when, and how much, and holds each parent equally accountable for the health, safety, financial stability, and well-being of their child.

Child custody orders are often associated with divorce. However, these documents are also relevant to non-married co-parents who share parenting responsibilities. Once it is signed by a judge, a child custody order carries the full weight of the law and is completely enforceable, and failing to abide by its terms can have serious consequences.

In Pennsylvania, custody is divided into two main categories: legal custody and physical. Both of these custody branches (legal and physical) can be granted to either one partner alone (called “sole custody”) or to both as joint partners (also known as “joint custody”).

Here's a closer look at each category and how both will impact your Mercer County custody order.

Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to the right a parent has to make decisions on behalf of their child. This decision-making authority encompasses large-scale choices as well as smaller, everyday options, along with their right to choose how their child will be raised.

For example, this includes choices about:

  • Physical and mental healthcare options
  • Major surgeries and operations
  • Education
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Religious and cultural exposure

Barring any unusual circumstances (such as a history of abuse or neglect), Mercer County courts will usually award both parents joint legal custody. This means that both of their opinions carry equal weight in the relationship and that no major (or minor) decisions can be made without the permission of both.

Physical Custody

The second branch of custody is physical. This relates to a child's physical time—specifically where the child will live, with whom, and for how long.

In Pennsylvania, all child custody decisions are made according to the best interest of the child. These interests are served when a child has a loving relationship with both parents whenever possible, and that relationship can't flourish without time. However, unlike legal custody (which does not require you to share physical space with your child in order to exercise), physical custody does require in-person time. This is why this branch of custody can be difficult to divide.

In Mercer County, physical custody generally falls under one of the following arrangements:

  • Sole Physical Custody—one parent has all of the child's physical time.
  • Primary Physical Custody—the child lives with one parent while the other receives visitation.
  • Shared Physical Custody—the child splits their time between both houses equally.
  • Partial Physical Custody—one parent is the primary living space, while the other has less time.
  • Supervised Physical Custody—the child does not live with either parent, and all parent/child interactions are supervised.

In a perfect world, both parents would have equal time with their children. However, between school, work, activities, and other outside obligations, that's often a lot easier said than done. Instead, one parent will usually end up with more parenting time than the other—even if only by a small amount.

Filing for Child Custody in Mercer County

Family law is a state power, and individual cases that fall under its umbrella—including divorce and child custody—are handled by the county courthouse where you live. For Mercer County residents, the location to file custody and divorce cases is on the first floor of the Mercer County courthouse, located at 123 N. Diamond Street, Mercer, PA 16137.

However, before filing for child custody, Mercer County citizens are strongly encouraged to consult an attorney. Family law is incredibly complex, and without property representation, it's too easy to accidentally give up important rights.

Unrepresented parents filing for child custody in Mercer County will need to follow these five steps:

  1. Determine Eligibility. You cannot file for custody in Mercer County unless you have lived in the county for at least six months. If you don't meet that requirement, you'll have to either wait six months or file in the county where the child used to live.
  2. Fill Out the Paperwork. Initiating custody requires you to fill out several different forms, including a “complaint for custody.” This will require a lot of personal information. In order to avoid delays, you'll want to take your time and be as accurate as possible.
  3. Notarize Documents. Your paperwork is not complete until you've had it signed and notarized prior to filing.
  4. Make Copies. Mercer County officials recommend you bring at least three copies of your paperwork to the courthouse for filing. (One for filing, one for mailing through regular mail, and the third for certified mail.) It's a good idea to have a fourth for your own personal records.
  5. File Paperwork. Bring all forms, accompanying documents, and copies to the Mercer County courthouse and file them with the clerk. Their offices are open Monday through Friday, 83:0am-4:30pm.
  6. Pay the Filing Fee. When you file your paperwork, you will also be asked to pay a filing fee. In Mercer County, the filing fee for a custody action is $136.75. (If you are unable to pay this amount, then you may qualify for a fee waiver.)
  7. Execute Proper Service. Once your paperwork is filed, the last step is to notify your child's other parent that you've filed a custody action against them. This requires more than just a simple text or phone call and must be initiated via proper service.

Information about Mercer County family law can be found on the Mercer County webpage.

Who May File for Child Custody in Mercer County?

Not everyone can file for custody. You might know and love a child—might even spend a lot of time caring for their physical needs—but under Pennsylvania family law, only certain individuals are allowed to initiate a custody claim.

In Mercer County, you may file a claim for child custody if you are:

  • The child's biological parent.
  • The child's grandparent (under certain circumstances).
  • Or an adult (such as a nanny, aunt, or friend) who has acted in a parental capacity for an extended period of time (who may or may not be biologically related to the child).

If you do not fall under one of these categories, then you cannot file for child custody. However, you may still be able to petition for guardianship or adoption.

Enforcing a Custody Order

Pennsylvania courts do not take child custody matters lightly. After it is signed by a judge, these arrangements are binding, enforceable, and carry the full weight of the law.

If it helps, think of a custody order as your own personal law. For you and your child's other parent, these terms are as binding as statutory laws that keep our society in order. And, just like breaking the law, failure to meet a specified obligation can have serious consequences, including hefty fines, contempt of court, and, in some cases, even jail time.

The best thing to do if one parent isn't upholding their end of the bargain is to try communicating amicably. No one wants to go back to court, and a lot of times, these custody disputes can be chalked up to a simple misunderstanding of how the obligations are supposed to be carried out.

For serious issues that can't be worked out (such as failure to pay child support or a repeated inability to keep a parenting time schedule), then you may need to go back to court. In this case, you'll want to speak to an attorney about filing a “motion to enforce” with the Mercer County court.

Pennsylvania courts take parental responsibilities very seriously. Repeated failure to comply could ultimately end up costing you a limited or complete loss of parental rights. If there is a legitimate reason you cannot uphold the terms of your order, then it's best to speak to an attorney immediately about how to modify it.

Modifying a Mercer County Custody Order

Life is not stagnant. People move. Change. Get new jobs, new schedules, and new routines. What works for your custody order now might not work in the future, and at some point, you may want to modify an existing custody order.

In Pennsylvania, there are three main types of modification petitions. These include:

  1. Petition to Modify—This can be initiated whenever the current custody order isn't in the best interest of the child. Often, parents initiate one of these petitions for things like relocation, job changes, or simply because the family has outgrown the old arrangement.
  2. Petition for Civil Contempt of a Custody Order—A modification petition used whenever one parent is willfully not complying with some (or all) of a current order.
  3. Petition for Special Relief—These orders are only used when a child is at significant risk of physical or emotional harm (such as abuse or neglect).

The process for filing a custody modification is quite similar to filing an initial petition for custody. These documents must be filed at the Mercer County courthouse and include the same notary and filing fee requirements as an original petition for child custody.

Child custody laws are incredibly complex and involve many essential parental rights. If you have questions about how to enforce or modify a current custody order, it's best to speak to an experienced family law attorney. Without proper representation, it's easy to make expensive, time-consuming mistakes that can be difficult—if not impossible—to resolve.

A Pennsylvania Family Law Attorney Can Help You Navigate Child Custody in Mercer County

Child custody can be an exhausting, uphill battle—especially when parents disagree on what's best for their child. Luckily, this is one journey you don't have to do alone. An experienced attorney can help you navigate the complexities of Pennsylvania family law, taking on the stress of logistical labor so you don't have to.

For more questions about child custody in Mercer County, we want to hear from you. Call the LLF Law Firm Family Law Team today at (888) 535-3686 or contact us online, and let us help protect your rights while finding the best arrangement for your family's unique needs.

Contact a skilled Family Law Team Today!

The LLF Law Firm has unparalleled experience practicing Family Law in Pennsylvania. If you are having any uncertainties about what the future may hold for you and your family, contact our offices today. Our Family Law Team will go above and beyond the needs for any client and fight for what is fair.

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